I thought about this memory this weekend, visiting Ruthie and my family. Ruthie and Mike bought part of what was once the orchard from our distant cousins, and built their house there. The rest of the land that had once been Lois and Hilda’s was sold to strangers. The cabin has long been gone; a nice big brick house belonging to someone I don’t know is now where the cabin was. True to Hilda’s palm-reading prophecy, I traveled far in my life. I have now spent well over half my life living away from there. Yet that is home for me, because that is where my family is, and the landscape of my childhood. Now, though, my parents are getting up in years, and my younger sister, at age 40, is battling a disease that may take her life. I hadn’t realized until this crisis with Ruthie how much I had counted on the continuity of her remaining there, even after our parents pass away, to anchor that place as the center of my imaginative universe. She, who has always loved the land and her place there far more than I, and she, whom I could count on to always be faithful to it, however unfaithful I was, sits in her armchair in what was once the orchard, coughing and straining for breath. We hope and we pray for healing, but now the way I thought the world would be may not be the way the world is, or will become. And I am having a hard time coming to terms with that, as both an emotional and a philosophical matter (i.e., trying to understand how to relate to where I come from now that the permanence I assumed would always be there is threatened).
From what I recall Louisiana is a region of the United States where people move least, and are deeply rooted in their locales. In this way I suppose it’s more like Europe and much of the Old World, with the importance of place encapsulated in terms such as Heimat. Though I am an American my family is from Bangladesh, and on the rare occasions that I interact with Bangladeshis I will be asked what my desh is, roughly my ancestral homeland. That would happen to be a small town in the southeast of modern Bangladesh, where my paternal ancestors settled several centuries ago, and where my extended family still has lands. But here’s the thing: I’ve never been to “my” desh. My parents always found this amusing when I asked as a child how my homeland could be a place to which I’d never been, and on some level I think they accept that these terms are anachronistic. Like much of Asia Bangladesh has seen massive urbanization within the past generation, and I get the sense that these old terms are far less relevant. In some ways it may be that Europe and North America, where development and modernization occurred at a slower place, may be the regions where a traditional sense of place remains the most robust because of the more gentle transition from the past to the future.